While outrage towards the recent update on the alcohol policy ensues, an insidious counterculture of hard pre-gaming — bred by our community’s incessant demand for alcohol on Thursday and Saturday nights — surfaces and raises one question for many incoming freshmen like me: is the student community genuinely interested in creating a safe environment for all?
Upon learning about the new alcohol policy, I understood the change as a boon. Like many incoming Swatties, my first priority was the need to feel safe in a completely new environment. Thus, I couldn’t understand the pushback against the revised policies — hypothetically, students would be safer when attending parties and less inclined to consume alcohol. Plus, there is the entangling snare of legality: by allowing alcohol for all, Swarthmore abets in promoting underage drinking. Most upperclassmen would say my that my parochial and naïve opinion amounts to a sacrilegious attack against deeply-entrenched Swarthmore traditions.
To be honest, I don’t care. After enduring a strenuously long week, I anticipated my first Pub Nite would serve as a respite from the hectic lifestyle to which I will soon acclimate. I say yes to the awkward dancing, juice cartons, and Doritos — a party can most definitely be simultaneously dry and fun. Approximately an hour before Pub Nite, however, I started receiving texts regarding places where pre-gaming was occurring. Willets 3rd, Alice Paul lounge, Parrish 4th, individual dorm rooms, etc. An update would come roughly every 15 minutes and not stop until midnight. Hence, when entering Paces at around 11 PM, I was not surprised to see that many plastered students were already swaying tipsily on the Paces dancefloor. Pub Nite was BYOB, which ushered in an influx of freshmen desperately pining for sips of alcohol from upperclassmen. The whole scene was uncomfortable and pathetic, and I just wanted to leave.
So did the policy fail to create a safe and inclusive space for all students, wet and dry? As a neophyte strategist myself, I established a few guiding principles that will prove to be instrumental in explaining this phenomenon.
1) Swatties will drink. There is a constant demand for alcohol. If it is not met at Paces, students will find other ways to get alcohol. Alcohol demand will not decrease because of public unavailability.
2) Swatties will purchase alcohol. Rum and vodka will flow like milk and honey here, and definitely has. If it is not met in Paces/funded by the school, the alcohol supplies in dorms and cars will certainly match the quantity demanded.
3) Swatties need to relax. For the average Swattie, the spate of homework and extra-curricular activities is overwhelming, and many — including Plato and researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health — have noted that temperate alcohol consumption is an excellent form of relaxing and creating happiness. Consuming alcohol is prevalent in Swarthmore culture.
What we have here is a classic example of counterculture created when authority figures attempt to “ban” something. This counterculture, however, can be just as dangerous as the previous paradigm.
Non-freshman students who pre-game today, fully cognizant of the disappearance of alcohol from public events, will consume the same amount of alcohol that they would have if they pre-gamed and drank at Paces. Underclassmen follow suit, but since we are not familiar with the rules of the game, it can be dangerous for the new and inexperienced. Being alone with cheap tequila, subpar beer (can freshmen really afford anything nice?) and your posse of friends who know nothing about dealing with alcohol poisoning is starkly different from being at Paces and having a sober supervisor manning the beer station. It is far too easy to go overboard when left unattended. This behavior is also replicated for parties that do supply alcohol, such as Disorientation, as students feel the need to arrive at parties already in a drunken stupor.
My gut feeling was betrayed by reality. It’s not parties that are unsafe, but it is the drinking culture created by banning drinking at parties that is not sustainable. Aside from their concern for safety, freshmen also look for fun and adventure; at Swarthmore, this commonly translates to drinking and partying. For freshmen without alcohol experience, the peer pressure to drink is greater than ever when it is your hallmate pulling out the vodka two doors down from you. And here is where I must stress that our community’s tendency to imbibe should be questioned, as it is the driving force that produced this counterculture.
In Pennsylvania, as is the case with most states, minors are prohibited from purchasing, possessing, and consuming alcohol. To vehemently support the distribution of alcohol at Paces by citing tradition as a reason to continue the practice is to support lawlessness. Why are students upset that an illegal practice has now been stopped? While I both acknowledge the benefits of social drinking and approve of former President Chopp’s participation in the Amethyst Initiative, the plain truth is that minors’ consumption of alcohol is illegal. There are many alternative de-stressors that are both dry and fun — students may feel that the only way to have fun on a Saturday night is to get shitfaced in Willets because their hallmates are doing it. When we are intransigent to comply with law because it differs from our norm, we inadvertently create a dangerous drinking environment. This also shines a light on our petulance: we will consciously choose to blur the lines of the law if the individual utility gained from participating in illicit activities outweighs that gained from altruistically creating a comfortable environment for others.
At the same time, the administration should not be foolishly satiated with their policies riddled with holes; the ramifications of policy can only be understood and felt by students, and thus, we should be integral members in the decision-making process. Being a Swattie for nearly a month now, I see that we are collectively intelligent. We know what creates a safe drinking environment. We are mostly aware of what our limits are, and we notice and speak up when our peers over-consume. Also, we will help those in need. I firmly believe that administration must pass their reins onto a responsible and elected student government that understand the real effects of policy. Banning alcohol to prevent liability issues is definitely a step in the right direction, but banning drinking games for students of legal age, funnels, and the donations to Senior Week is excessive.
We should acknowledge both the benefits and flaws presented through the recent policy changes. And though no grand strategy can predict every looming consequence, I contend that students should be given more license to create the safe, legal, and fun environment that we want through policy. The momentum the administration started by introducing the policy may have led us slightly awry, but our community must answer a few key questions going forward as we seek to a genuinely safe social environment. What does it mean for Swarthmore to be a community that condones underage drinking? Is it possible for drinking and non-drinking students to interact with each other at parties without a pressure to drink? Are the wishes of non-drinking students truly respected when considering the nature of the debate surrounding alcohol policy?